Cambodian Shadows

When the Khmer Rouge took over, the new regime moved in with loudspeakers, clearing out the cities and killing all educated Cambodians. Even those who wore glasses were considered intellectuals and hacked to death. The regime abolished currency, schools, jobs and health care.

The overthrow of Pol Pot's regime in 1979 by Vietnamese forces did not bring an end to the chaos, however. For more than a decade, a civil war between the government and the Khmer Rouge resistance kept millions of Cambodians in refugee camps. Then it took nearly six years of wrangling before the United Nations and Cambodia would agree to terms for a tribunal. Now, setting a date depends on raising enough money. According to the U.S. State Department, the United States contributed $70 million to international tribunals last year, making it the world's largest donor. Yet it refuses to contribute to Cambodia's tribunal, largely because some legislators question Cambodia's current leadership.

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, both Republicans, say current Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen must be removed before a tribunal begins. Hun, a former lieutenant for Pol Pot who defected before the Khmer Rouge regime fell, has promised a fair tribunal. But he has also suggested burying the past and has shown sympathy toward some of his accused former comrades, even hosting two of them at his home.

Others, such as Ben Kiernan, who directs Yale University's Genocide Studies Program, believe justice, however imperfect, is long overdue.

Savitri Singh, the senior policy advisor for U.S. Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.), says the larger crime would be more delays. "We have a tribunal for Rwanda; we're talking about a tribunal for Iraq; we're talking about one for Darfur—and these are all supported by the U.S.," Singh said. "The U.S. objections are more that the agreement is not good enough, or that the tribunal is going to be corrupt, but any justice is better than no justice at all."

Some critics say the United States resists supporting Cambodia's tribunal because it fears a public airing of its role in support of the Khmer Rouge after the regime was overthrown by the Vietnamese. Despite the atrocities, the Khmer Rouge, with assistance from the U.S., held a seat at the United Nations well into the 1980s.


"Enemies of the People"

Cambodians have set aside few places to remember this terrible era. Many simply want to forget and move on. If discussed, the subject of the Khmer Rouge regime is usually brought up by outsiders, not Cambodians. Even their schoolbooks have been sanitized of Khmer Rouge history.

But down a dirt road in Phnom Penh is an unforgettable place—the Tuol Sleng prison, or S-21, where more than 16,000 Cambodians were interrogated, tortured and killed. Once a high school, the campus became the Khmer Rouge's premier torture headquarters and is now a museum.

Tourists at Tuol Sleng, most of them foreigners, roam the classrooms of the three-story buildings, touching the rusted shackles, tracing the fractured lines on skulls, and studying hundreds of black-and-white photos—some are shots of faces as they entered the prison; others are of corpses bearing signs of torture.

The Khmer Rouge modified these quiet grounds to fit their needs. After several suicides, they strung barbed wire across the top-floor walkways to keep prisoners from jumping. A sign listing rules warns prisoners not to cry while being tortured with electric shocks. Inside, sloppily mortared bricks divide classrooms into pens large enough for a human to lie down while shackled to the floor.

Only seven prisoners were found alive when the Vietnamese arrived. One of them, an artist named Vann Nath, painted stark recollections of what had happened inside: malnourished bodies stacked side-by-side in a large classroom; babies grabbed from screaming mothers; a woman horrified as her fingernails are peeled back and doused with alcohol.

In a French film titled “S-21: The Killing Machine,” Vann confronted Khieu Ches, a former Tuol Sleng guard, as they roamed the former prison grounds. The guard, known as "Poeuv," was barely a teen when he was taught to control prisoners with shackles and threats. Vann prodded Poeuv to take responsibility for harming prisoners. The guard reluctantly admitted that, yes, he did beat prisoners, even killed a few—but he was driven by fear for his own life. Vann gently demanded that he must have known what he did was wrong—that, if he had a sense of humanity, he wouldn't have blindly obeyed.

In the film, for an eerie few minutes, Poeuv reenacts his prison routine. He walks from cell to cell, yelling at phantom prisoners, addressing them by numbers and not names, scolding them for not defecating in their buckets. Time had not dulled his gestures or tone. To him they were still "enemies of the people."


The Battlefield Within

Dr. Sotheara Chhim is a Phnom Penh psychiatrist treating former Khmer Rouge members in Kandal province. He has seen how these former guards and soldiers deal with their past by beating their wives, threatening their neighbors and drinking too much. Violence has become part of their landscape.

In his experience, Chhim said, most former Khmer Rouge members lack social skills. They don't trust others and live in fear. One woman can't use matches because the smell reminds her of the ammunition she once carried for the Khmer Rouge. A former Khmer Rouge captain tortured by his comrades cannot go anywhere alone.

Cambodia also struggles with internal blame. It was their own people, after all, who committed these crimes.

"That is why we're so traumatized. You have the battlefield within yourself," said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

"How would I tell you that the man who killed my sister was my neighbor?” Chhang asked. “How can you say that the one who killed your parents was your brother? So people blame the Vietnamese, the Chinese. You know who my mother blames? God. That's the only way she lives in peace."

The world must also find a way live with these crimes against humanity, which is why the United Nations is pushing to fund the international tribunal.

Some have criticized the tribunal, however, because it is only allowed to prosecute crimes committed by Khmer Rouge members from 1975 to 1979, which leaves wrongdoings by other parties immune from prosecution. The tribunal will also include a majority of Cambodian prosecutors and judges, raising concerns about how fair they can be toward those they once feared and perhaps collaborated with.

Chanrithy Him, an Oregon-based author who lost most of her family under the Khmer Rouge, says flawed or not, time has come to prosecute the Khmer Rouge, before it is too late.

"It's going to be a symbolic thing to hold these leaders accountable for what they did," Chanrithy said. "I know that many Cambodians, including my relatives, are afraid to confront it. You can imagine a whole nation of survivors—it's awful. But I think we must do it, because it is the only way to help us heal."